For the third time in the past 12 years, Chilean students are back on the streets calling for equality in education. This time they are protesting a decision taken by the Constitutional Tribunal to overturn the Higher Education Law, which would have made university education free and banned universities operating for profit.
The education scene in Chile has seen a few U-turns. Free education was overturned in 1981, which led to an explosion of private providers and one of the most stratified and segregated education systems in the world. High school students hit the streets in 2006. They were followed in 2011 by university students who protested against the cost of tuition, the related student debts, and the rise of private institutions. As a result, when Bachelet was elected for her second term with 62% in 2013, partly on the wave of these protests, she brought in free tuition reforms and turned over the voucher-heavy education system that had been creating unwanted inequalities in access.
It was these reforms that recently have been claimed to be unconstitutional by a group of private universities. They were also claimed by many to be unsustainable, initially estimated by the Ministry of Finance to cost $3.14 billion per year.
Private higher education institutions are nothing new. They have been growing steadily the world over, as we showed in our recent policy paper. They account for 49% of student enrolment in Latin America, rising to 80% of students in Chile in 2015. Chile, according to the OECD, now has the fourth most expensive university system in the world. And, subsequently, the cost frequently falls on students’ shoulders. National education accounts for 2013 show that households in Chile were covering 55% of the costs of total higher education expenditure.
“Chilean families have been taking to the streets for a long time to say we don’t want for-profit education, that we don’t want businessmen filling their pockets from the resources of hundreds of thousands of students,” said Rodrigo Rivera, spokesman for the national students’ association CONFECH.
The implementation of the Bachelet reforms was barely in place for two years before now being stopped in their tracks. Assessing impact for something so short-term is hard. That said, emerging analyses by Brookings and the University of Chile had foreseen that their findings could be useful for policy makers in the United Kingdom and the United States now facing debates over rising tuition fees. The latter analysis claims that the reforms left universities “underfunded” and “crowded out” students from the poorest backgrounds, supplementing existing student-aid schemes, rather than providing education for all.
Our WIDE database shows that, reforms or not, inequalities in higher education access remain. Only 35% of the poorest fifth in Chile attend post-secondary education, compared to 65% of the richest. Is private provision the answer for these inequalities, is the question students are now asking. Does it cover their right to a free education?
And their voice will no doubt resonate just as it was in 2006 and 2011. Youth, as we showed in the 2017/8 GEM Report, have an important voice in holding governments to account. Just as the march in the United States by students calling for better gun laws and school protection is leaving success in its wake, let us now watch to see how this power is used in Chile. It is a perfect case study of accountability in action.